Posts Tagged ‘kids movies’

Why So Serious, Superman?

August 7, 2013
Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades.  Click the pic for the link.

Speaking of Wonder Woman, I HIGHLY recommend this fascinating documentary on Super Heroes and what they have meant to girls and women through the decades. Click the pic for the link.

As some of your know, I’m currently working to get my own take on the Super Hero story, The Adventures of MightyDove, out into the public eye.  Of course over the past decade, the likes of Batman, Iron Man, Captain America, and company (though it still frustrates me that Wonder Woman can’t get off the ground) have hit the big screen running, and have fought their way into the mainstream.  Being a guy who remembers comic conventions being nothing but white boxes in the back room of a cheap hotel, it amazes me to see nerd culture firmly established a primary driver of pop culture.

My big fella, now twelve, has discovered the series Smallville, a show full of intrigue and teen angst wrapped up in a Superman package—perfect for an imaginative pre-teen.  While Smallville became something of a wildly uneven show after about the 3rd season, especially after losing Michael Rosenbaum, who was to my mind still by far the best Lex Luthor ever depicted either animated or live action, it did a nice job jugging the very delicate balancing act needed of the genre.  You don’t go 10 seasons without doing something right…

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

Show never quite got its full mojo back once Lex left.

With their “No Flights, No Tights” axiom, they endeavored to seat characters who felt real into the unreal world of Superman.  While sometimes redundant with the “freak of the week,” they always managed to capture the sense of almost comic bewilderment when the wild and wacky happened.  It always gave you that small edge of the tongue-in-cheek that allowed you to feel amused at the situation even as the world—or at least Clark and Lana’s relationship—were put ever in peril.

Yet as much as Gus is currently obsessed with Smallville, he didn’t really love the latest Superman iteration, Man of Steel.  Indeed, he and I both came to a similar conclusion after we took in the movie.  Great effects, thin plot, and absolutely no joy.  We both came out feeling that the failed reboot that was Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns (interesting to note that it gets a 75% on Rotten Tomatoes, far higher than the 56% for MoS) was actually more entertaining because, despite its many flaws, it felt more like, well…Superman.

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Superman II was hokey, no doubt, but Man of Steel could have used a little more hokey

Of course, Mr. Hippie Nerd here had a very difficult time with the climax to Man of Steel.  [SPOILERS] Indeed, I was actually a bit heartened to learn that producer and Dark Knight Trilogy director Christopher Nolan actually vehemently disagreed with Zack Snyder’s decision to have Kal-El snap Zod’s neck.  Not only has Superman always been about finding ways not to kill the enemy (see the animated movie Superman vs. The Elite now streaming on Netflix for a great example), but the film actually set up a perfect device (the terraforming of Earth to make it Krypton-like) to defeat Zod without resorting to death.  Snyder seemed to go out of his way to make sure that the man who stands as an example of what humanity should aspire to would be pulled down into the abyss of, “Sometimes you’ve just got to kill the bad guy.” Nolan wasn’t the only one to express dismay over Snyder’s decision.  Grant Morrison, a well-known comic book writer whose titles include the All Star Superman series, had this to say:

“It’s a credible Superman for now. But I’m not sure about the killing thing. I don’t want to sound like some fuddy-duddy Silver Age apologist but I’ve noticed a lot recently of people saying Batman should kill the Joker and, yeah, Superman should kill, he should make the tough moral decisions we all have to make every day. I don’t know about you, but the last moral decision I made didn’t have anything to do with killing people. And I don’t think many of us ever have to make the decision whether or not to kill. In fact, the more you think about it, unless you’re in one of the Armed Forces, killing is illegal and immoral. Why would we want our super­heroes to do that?”

[END SPOILERS] Indeed, this trend to pull Super Heroes down to “our level” is in no way limited to our favorite Kryptonian orphan.  Iron Man 3 took our wise-cracking Tony Stark down a dark hole of addiction and PTSD.  Captain America: The Winter Solider, is already being billed as “darker” – more of a 70’s noir feel.  And even the most comedy-laced mainstream hero there is, Spider-Man, was so angst-ridden, so humor-free in his latest incaration that even star Andrew Garfield admitted that it was a problem with the first film.

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see

Now THIS is a Pixar sequel I want to see!

Increasingly, the whole genre seems to be suffering from Dark Knight Disease.  Not that the TDK trilogy wasn’t excellent.  It was.  But so was Thor, the Avengers, and Sam Rami’s first two Spider-Man films.  Not to mention The Incredibles and Megamind, both of which were successful even venturing into the realm of pure comedy. And did I mention all those films made a load of green?  So no excuses to be found there for always taking our heroes down the dark path.

My greatest fear of this “hyper-realistic” trend is, by removing the joy from Super Heroes, they are extracting the most essential element of the genre: imagination.  Not that you can’t create a serious yet imaginative Super Hero film.  But for the audience, the genre is removed from that dreamlike, aspirational quality.  Super Heroes may have powers, but they cease to become super.

In the urge to make these heroes more like us, we lose the wonder that makes us want to be better, to be more like them.  And I think that is a genuine loss to our kids, who despite the mainstream audience and grown-ups engaging in cosplay, should still be who we make these stories for.

With the announcement that The Dark Knight Returns author Frank Miller is consulting on the new Batman vs. Superman film, my skepticism deepens that much more.  TDKR was a seminal comic book series, turning Batman into a gothic, noir struggle where each and every hero—even the sainted Superman—had feet of clay.  But it was the opposite of inspirational: a desperate slog through a dystopian future with only the faintest glimmer of hope at the conclusion.

Okay, I don't NEED the Batusi, but...

Okay, I don’t NEED the Batusi, but…

While I don’t need Batman dancing the Batusi to be satisfied, I urge the stewards of Super Heroes to remember that the entire genre is predicated on the fantastic notion of what could be.  That is what sparks the imagination of children of all ages to strive to be more than we are, to want to do something to make the world a better place, just like this amazing Mother told her young son after he discovered that Superman wasn’t real.

So when it comes to saving Super Heroes, I think the best advice is to relax and don’t take it so seriously.   Just imagine all of them in their underwear.  That always seems to do the trick.

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The Review: 42

April 30, 2013

As I noted in my last post about Jason Collins, now is a particularly prescient moment to see this film with your kids.  I’ll get to that more in a bit, but let’s talk about the movie itself.

42 Movie PosterThe Movie
42, Warner Brothers

Based on a Book?
No. Though there are numerous books at all reading levels about Jackie Robinson. I’ll get to that below.

Genre
Historical drama

Age Appropriate
9 and up.  While I think this movie might be a little slow for younger kids, the key thing you’d need to decide is whether extremely racist language is appropriate for your child.  I think the power and shock value of hearing how easily racist language and mentalities dripped from Americans in the late 1940s is of tremendous educational value, but you might differ on that.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes, yes, yes.  This film has a very “old-timey” feel to it that anyone who has watched a vintage movie might enjoy, even though sometimes is plays a little cheesy.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
Well, the “N-word” is dropped numerous times in this film.  Particularly in the scene when Jackie’s Dodgers play the Phillies under uber-racist skipper Ben Chapman, he is forced to endure a profanity and vulgarity-laced screed replete with sexual innuendo that earns this film its PG-13 rating.  Prepping your younger kids for that scene can help make it a learning experience.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey has decided the time has come for the color barrier of America’s pastime to be broken.  We follow the process of his choice– USC graduate and army veteran Jackie Robinson–breaking through this great wall, starting as a minor leaguer in Montreal through is first season in Brooklyn.

My Review
I saw this movie with my 11-year-old and his buddy, both avid baseball fans.  And as a teaching tool about civil rights, prejudice, and the bravery of the path of nonviolence, it is hard to imagine a better film for that audience.

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

Even through the cheese, enough moments like this to give history nerds the chills

I have to say going in I was a little worried about the choice of newcomer Chadwick Boseman, as from the previews I had not seen the cerebral, almost nerdy Jackie Robinson that I had seen in old films, including The Jackie Robinson Story where Jackie plays himself (it used to be streaming on Netflix, but is no longer…interesting).  Instead, it looked like they had turned him instead into a contemporized and stereotypical “angry black man.”  I have to say that was one concern that was alleviated by a solid scripting of the character and a convincing performance by Boseman.

"You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!"

“You throw me the idol, I throw you the Geretol!”

I was also delighted to see Harrison Ford actually act in a film for the first time in at least a decade, rather than just say lines and collect a check.  While his performance was slightly schmaltzy, again for a younger crowd it worked very well.  Of course, the kids were in complete disbelief that, “That was Indiana Jones!”

Actually, schmaltzy is a great word for this entire movie.  From the score to the script, the film felt not sappy, but larded through a lens of baseball mythology.  From the little boy putting his ear to the track carrying Jackie’s train to the big leagues screaming, “I can HEAR it!” to the slow-motion trot around the bases to the shouts of trumpets and angels, the film itself sometimes felt like a glorified movie-of-the-week. But that glorification actually made it work, mostly because this really is American myth.

This story is so seminal that it can stand up to being put on a pedestal and not crash under its own weight.  I actually compare this to John Goodman’s The Babe which in many ways had a similar feel, but despite the realistic depictions of ballparks and Goodman being one of my very favorite actors, it just felt like an over-the-top beatification of the Babe.  But here, perhaps because this was such a huge issue, one that transcended baseball, it works.

Didn't realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in.  Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

Didn’t realize I had been to this Ebbets field, as Engel Staidum was used as a stand-in. Click on the pic for a great post by Garrett on the Road on the full filming history.

And speaking of realistic depictions of the ballparks—wow.  My parents practically lived at Ebbets Field and the Polo Grounds growing up.  Of course, I’ve seen the parks on film.  But the painstaking CGI recreations of these parks, for the first time, made me feel like I could actually go and visit those long gone baseball cathedrals.  I found the CGI of the ball’s flight when pitched or hit a little distracting and unrealistic sometimes, but that’s a small nerdy quibble for getting closer than I ever thought I could get to experiencing those fields of dreams.  If that’s something of interest to you, I highly recommend you going to see this in the theater.  It will lose some of its grandeur even on your big screen TV at home.

Now THAT'S a slow-motion home run trot!

Now THAT’S a slow-motion home run trot!

Speaking of grandeur, I think what was missing for me in this film was a lack of grandeur, actually.  We skipped from one seminal moment to another, and I almost felt like I was watching a historical highlight reel rather than a cohesive story.  In order to be a great film, I felt like the story needed a little more connective tissue.  One of the great baseball films of all time that has a similar mythological feel, The Natural, is replete with small moments, from talking about how good the food is at a restaurant to batting practice conversation.  It brought a personal feel to a grand film that I really didn’t find much in 42.  Even the personal moments were vital, as if every second of the man’s life was filled with huge importance.  That separation from a regular Joe like me was missing, and, I think, kept 42 from truly competing with movies like The Natural, Field of Dreams (my favorite movie of all time), Eight Men Out, and Bull Durham and even Major League (just the first one) as iconic baseball films.

That said, it does more than enough to be both entertaining and thought-provoking.  Having Gus quote me Branch Rickey’s line “I’m looking for a man with the guts not to fight back!” made it worth the price of admission right there.

Overall Score: 4 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
I will once again recommend that, whether before or after you see 42, you and your kids read the excellent piece Jason Collins wrote in Sports Illustrated as he joins Robinson as a civil rights pioneer through sports.  For more on Jackie Robinson for kids, I’m a big fan of the “Who Was?” series and there is a very good one on Jackie Robinson that we own.  And, to continue the story, one of the all-time classic baseball books Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summer is recommended for absolutely anyone.

But, however, you do it, please bring Jackie Robinson into your children’s life.  I truly believe his story is a gateway to a cornucopia of fantastic life lessons.

The baseball is just a fringe benefit.

Read It Then See It: Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies

April 23, 2013

Now that the Rise of the Guardians movie is out on DVD, I thought it well past time to post my review of the third in the Guardians of Childhood series.  Here are my reviews of the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund, and my review of the Rise of the Guardians film.

ToothianaThe Book
Toothiana: Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies, by William Joyce.  Published in 2012 by Atheneum Books

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, DreamWorks Animation.  Now available on DVD.

Genre
Fantasy/Fairytale

Age Appropriate
6 and up.  You’ll note that I’m bumping this up a year from the first two.  While you could probably still get away with it at 5, the third installment takes on a bit of a darker tone.  Not in a Harry Potter way, but in introducing more tragic elements that, while brilliant, are a bit more troubling than the first two.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Oh my, YES. 

Book Availability
I have the hard copy, but this is now available on iTunes for $10.00.  I downloaded the sample and have to say that in this case, the wonderful illustrations lose a little something off the page.  There is something very classic and tactile about Joyce’s illustrations.  The book feels like some old treasure recently unearthed.  I’d go for the hard copy myself, though maybe I’m just showing my age.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
The evil Pitch’s defeat at the Earth’s Core has led the Guardians and the people of Santoff Clausen something close to a new Golden Age.  But while the children are free to plunge into the depths of their collective imagination, and the Guardians Nicholas St. North, E. Aster Bunnymund, and Ombric the wise deepen their friendships and skills, our heroine Katherine feels uneasy.  Caught between the world of children and her very adult responsibilities as a Guardian, she cannot shake the feeling that while Pitch may not be seen, he is not gone forever.  Indeed, her dark dreams seem somehow to confirm it.

Joyce captures Katherine's emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

Joyce captures Katherine’s emotions so wonderfully that each drawing is worth well over a thousand words.

And in the world of dreams, one woman reigns supreme.  Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairies, born of the joy of love and the tragedy of loss, raised by fairies to save the memories and joys of childhood stored in the teeth of children.  And when Katherine loses her very last baby tooth, Toothiana comes to collect this great prize.  But she is not the only one hoping to collect the tooth, or Katherine herself.

Flying monkeys!  Flying elephants!  The return of Pitch!  Yet, amidst all the action comes a connection that Katherine cannot deny—a seeming bond between her and the villain she fears the most.  And that bond may take more than just her life, but her very soul.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
I tried to keep my summary to a mere tease, because you really NEED to read this book.  It is, without hyperbole, the Empire Strikes Back of this series.

Katherine’s more somber tone, one of a girl becoming a woman under the most unusual and difficult of circumstances, is absolutely brilliant.  Joyce mixes the confusion of youth with Katherine’s inherently good soul in a way that does have some similarities to Luke Skywalker’s coming of age (but with far less whining).  Her friend Night Light’s confusion and ultimate dismay over her transformation, and her dreams mimics how friends often feel when they see their friends change as adolescence sets in.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

The touch of sadness in Toothiana gives her and the other characters a textured, real feel in a way not present in the film.

Toothiana herself was a real revelation.  Her tragic backstory was simply mythic, bringing in a more Oriental tone hitherto not seen in this series.  I also loved the notion, different than the film, that the tooth fairy armies are all actually her.  I don’t want to give away any more than that.

Also, a new force from our imagination emerges as a more neutral arbiter on affairs.  I won’t say who it is as the reveal I thought was brilliant.  What is so fabulous about this ethereal character is that it forces the Guardians to admit their own shortcomings—embracing the want to destroy the enemy over saving the good.  Only Katherine, even after everything, refuses to give in to hate.  But her refusal may well be her downfall.

Other than the fact that I feel like Nicholas St. North was being pushed more to the background here, which I didn’t love, there is simply nothing I can find in this book that isn’t absolutely remarkable, including one heck of a cliffhanger at the end.  It is a rich and very complex tale that brings an added depth to this storyline that, frankly I didn’t expect.  The fact that Joyce can continue to surprise is a testament to the depth of his imagination and talent.

Overall Read Score: 5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
Joyce’s tale opens up a plethora of conversations to have with your children.  Here are a few I thought of, but this series is so thick with ideas you’ll need to brush them away from your face.

The Loneliness of Tweendom:  Katherine has entered that most difficult of phases of development, as she begins to say goodbye to childish things.  Her membership as a Guardian brings this plight into sharp focus, and it is a wonderful way to introduce this feeling of not fitting in, and the difficulty that can come with feeling “special” in circumstances that, while here have their root in age, can evolve into any number of directions.

The Road to Hell… Good intentions—that’s what the Guardians are filled with.  Defending the innocent.  Fighting evil.  But, in a very interesting reversal of the Batman Begins mantra, “It’s now who I am inside, it’s what I do that defines me,” this book really challenges not just actions, but the feelings that motivate the actions.  What an amazing gateway to discuss the importance of feelings and the paths that feeling “justified” can take us.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch's evil look makes a great "Book/Cover" discussion.

Much like Darth Vader, Pitch’s evil look makes a great “Book/Cover” discussion.

The Bad Guy, Reconsidered:  The first two books begin to set up Pitch as a tragic character, but this one brings this plotline to a new level, connecting him and Katherine in a very interesting way.  So what at first is a very stark line between the light and dark becomes more blurred, but not in a “no one is really good or evil” kind of way.  Instead, Joyce is speaking more to the paths in both intention and action that lead us down the road to good and evil.  This is a wonderful way to bring in a reconsideration of the nature and how we should treat the person we consider “The Bad Guy.”  Katherine’s actions contrast with the rest of the Guardians very starkly, setting up a heck of a cliffhanger and a heck of a discussion.

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars.

Looking forward to meeting the "real" Jack Frost soon.

Looking forward to meeting the “real” Jack Frost soon.

What to Expect from the Movie
Well, you can read my review of the film here.  I found it disappointing, and it seems I’m not the only one as it seems the flop cost a lot of DreamWorks employees their jobs.  Of course, I liked John Carter, and that was even more of a flop, so box office isn’t always the best barometer of quality.

That said, most of my friends whose kids enjoyed the movie said that they had seen that first, then immediately jumped into the books.  Now that the DVD is out, that might be another solid pathway to getting your kids interested in reading this modern day classic.  But do note that, with the 3rd book, there seems now to be a more definite rift between what is in the books and what the movie was all about.  Especially because we’re going to get a look at Joyce’s version of Jack Frost in the next one.  I for one can’t wait to find out what happens next.

Read It and See It: Ender’s Game

February 8, 2013

As I have intimated in past posts, I’ve never been a huge supernatural fantasy fan.  I like the genre, but the Sci-Fi nerd in me always chafed when somehow magic and science get lumped into one category as if because you dig one, you must naturally love the other.  So I’m always delighted to see when a true science fiction story comes along to meet my RI&SI format.

Enders GameThe Book
Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card. Originally published in 1985 with revisions in 1991.

The Movie
Ender’s Game, Lionsgate. Release Date, November 1, 2013.

Genre
Science Fiction

Age Appropriate
10 and up.  While this book begins with the main character at six-years-old, it is by no mean a story for children.  Indeed, it is very much a story about what happens when children have their childhood taken from them.  While not as brutal, there is a lot of Lord of the Flies in this book. So think about that as you consider whether it’s appropriate for your child.  On the other hand, there are a LOT of themes of feeling alone, bullied, different, and the struggles of a young mind to adapt to a grown-up world that are very prescient for kids.  So by no means is it just a book for grown-ups.  I am encouraging my 11-year-old to read it.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Yes.  This is a Hugo and Nebula award-winning book.  Serious nerd cred right there.

Book Availability
I read mine on my iPhone and I know it’s available on Google Books as well.  If you’re picking it up in hard copy, I’d suggest making sure it’s the new 20th anniversary version, as Card’s new introduction has some interesting insights on both his creation and reaction to the book that’s worth reading (though frankly, better read after reading the book).

Quickie Plot Synopsis (minor spoilers)
Andrew “Ender” Wiggin isn’t supposed to exist.  On an overcrowded planet where population is strictly controlled, even second children are almost unheard of.  But as the commanders of the International Fleet (IF) search for the genius who can help them save the Earth from an insectoid alien race known pejoratively as “buggers” the Wiggin family are given permission to have a “third.”

Their first child, Peter, was absolutely brilliant, but certifiably sociopathic.  The second, Valentine, was perhaps even smarter, but she was too sensitive in the mind of the IF to be a capable leader.  And so Ender was tracked since his government-sanctioned birth (literally, as they implanted a camera in his neck) with the hopes of his being the right cocktail of the first two.  After beating back a group of bullies in his school, Commander Hyrum Graff decides that, at the ripe old age of six, this child is the one he’s been looking for.  Ender is commanded to leave his family, and the Earth itself, and train to become part of the International Fleet.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Definitely some Starship Troopers vibe going on.

Once separated from his family, Graff has only one mission: shape this boy into a leader brilliant enough to defeat a bugger onslaught that may well be even worse than what legendary commander Mazer Rackham was barely able to defend against decades ago.  In addition to learning how to deal with the zero gravity battle room like all other students, Ender is forced to face isolation, depravation, and peer menacing all carefully orchestrated against him.  His only escape is into an immersive computer fantasy game, which, of course, is yet another test.

Ender succeeds, but at a tremendous cost to his soul.  And when he is promoted to command school even before his twelfth birthday, the doubts about what he has done begin to overwhelm him.  That is when Mazer Rackham himself comes to begin a new game, one where the stakes may well be more than Ender could ever have imagined.

Quickie Review (minor spoilers)
There is a LOT to chew on in this book, despite its straight-forward narrative style.  At its heart, however, this story is about the benefits and burdens of being gifted.  It is about the curse of high expectations, and the cognitive disconnect that adults have, or will even force themselves to have, between intelligence and emotional maturity.

As I noted, the prose is written functionally, which Card says was intentional as he wanted this to be a book that wasn’t artistic or impenetrable, but a morality play that children can also access.  In that, he doesn’t present as gripping or fantastic a story of the formation of brilliance as a somewhat similar tale, Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age.  For while both the stories heavily involve the relationship between a child and a fantasy computer game for learning and development, Stephenson’s plot is far more delicately pieced together, while Card is pretty much using a sledgehammer to make his points.  That’s not necessarily a bad thing, especially for a YA book, but I can understand why it might frustrate older readers.

Without doubt, Ender’s experiences in battle school are the highlight of the book.  Card sets things up well so you pull for the kid from very early in the story, and slyly allows you to condone the violence he does, only to make both you and Ender reconsider that position.  I also very much liked the very vague understanding of “the buggers” that everyone had.  The fact that no one really knew what they were really like, even after two wars, so they were preparing to fight an enemy they really didn’t understand, was an outstanding and thought-provoking concept.

The sections where Card decides to take a break from Ender and focus on his siblings back on Earth felt odd and unnecessary to me.  I understand that they are supposed to be deeper explorations into the minds of brilliant children, but I didn’t see a lot of additional insight or, alternatively, a solid device to drive the plot forward.  Indeed I found myself very much desiring to return to Ender during those chapters.

And when we do return, and Ender goes to command school, the book returns to its strength, and reveals its most major and interesting point about the morality of war.  Questions about whether preemptive war is right, whether genocide is ever justified, and what it truly takes to lead are all explored in a very engaging and challenging way.

Don't do it, Steven!  Just fade to back!

Don’t do it, Steven! Just fade to back!

My only major issue with this book, actually, is with what I call the “Spielberg Effect.”  For from AI to Schindler’s List to Saving Private Ryan, Spielberg just can’t seem to help but tack on an ending to make sure that you absolutely knew what the point of the movie was, leaving the viewer no room to be a participant in his creation.  This is actually something that I’ve thought about a lot as I’ve written my own book; trying to ensure the dénouement doesn’t strangle the reader’s own interpretation of what transpired.

I feel that, most unfortunately, Card does exactly that.  He decides that we absolutely MUST know the true feelings and emotions behind the buggers and give Ender some emotional closure.  If that had been the central point of the book, that would have been fine.  But it was not, and by forcing each loose end into a square knot, Card took away a number of the lingering questions and doubts about what Ender had done that turned it from a thoughtful morality play into something that felt more sadly apologist.  This really squelched my ability to intellectually interact with the story; something, ironically, the author stresses he wants from the reader at the end of his new introduction.

So in all, a worthwhile read, though the ending almost made me revisit that conclusion.

Overall Read Score: 3.5 out of 5 stars

Opportunities for Discussion
As I’ve already noted, this book is filled-to-the-gills with interesting discussion opportunities for parents and kids.  Here’s a smattering of ones that I’ve come up with, but I’m sure you’ll come up with more:

The Curse of the Special Child:  Once a child has been designated as gifted, are there responsibilities that come along with that?  What is the balance between maximizing a child’s gift and ensuring that child has the right to a childhood?  How can and should adults push children to ensure that their talents come to the fore?

The Needs of the Many…  Ender is forced into his situation because of the perceived imminent threat of another bugger invasion (which is not exactly what it seems).  At what point are we allowed to use or endanger others, especially innocents, when a “greater good” is on the line.  This is a debate we are certainly having right now as regards issues such as drone strikes that have civilian casualties.

And do the Ends Justify the Means?  This particular question is asked in two different ways in the book.  The first is in the use of Ender—to do whatever it takes to form him into the kind of leader humanity needs at its darkest hour.  But then, the question is raised as to whether this is truly humanity’s darkest hour, which lends real complexity to the story, and the potential discussion.  It provides geopolitical, parenting, and playground jungle possibilities for talking about whether fighting to prevent a fight is ever justified.

Can't go wrong with a Horta!

Can’t go wrong with a Horta!

Ender Hears a Horta: There is very much an underlying theme here about assuming an adversary is an enemy.  It is very similar to one of my all-time favorite episodes of Star Trek, Devil in the Dark.  While in many ways I actually feel like this part of the plot actually took away from the quality of the overall book, it is very present and well worth discussing.

Is Humanity a Weakness? As Ender is “toughened up” his trainers chip away at his aversion and guilt toward violence.  Is building this kind of thick skin something that everyone should do?  What secondary ramifications of building up scar tissue toward the inhumanity of violence? What can that do to your perception of such positive human traits as love and compassion?

Violence in Video Games: This is the low-hanging fruit of the book, but is an interesting discussion to have with kids, especially if they dig Call of Duty or some of the other hyper-violent games.  Should video games be used to acculturate kids to adult realities?  Does it desensitize?  How can video games be used to help or to hurt kids?

Overall Family Discussion Score: 5 out of 5 stars

What to Expect from the Movie

Looks like they're aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

Looks like they’re aging up Ender to get one actor into the whole role.

My understanding is that Card has been heavily involved with the film project, including writing the screenplay.  Star Trek (2009) scribes Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman are producing, and Rendition and X Men Origins: Wolverine director Gavin Hood is at the helm.

The book in many was feels made for the screen, as it’s “kid against the world for the fate of civilization” is simple enough to be translated without many tough editing choices to the screen, I’d think.  And with Harrison Ford and Ben Kinglsey in the two adult male lead roles, one can see that there is some Hollywood gravitas behind the project.

I have to say, however, that the studio synopsis doesn’t make me overly excited:

In the near future, a hostile alien race (called the Formics) have attacked Earth. If not for the legendary heroics of International Fleet Commander Mazer Rackham (Ben Kingsley), all would have been lost. In preparation for the next attack, the highly esteemed Colonel Graff (Harrison Ford) and the International Military are training only the best young children to find the future Mazer. Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a shy but strategically brilliant boy, is pulled out of his school to join the elite.

Arriving at Battle School, Ender quickly and easily masters increasingly difficult war games, distinguishing himself and winning respect amongst his peers. Ender is soon ordained by Graff as the military’s next great hope, resulting in his promotion to Command School. Once there, he’s trained by Mazer Rackham himself to lead his fellow soldiers into an epic battle that will determine the future of Earth and save the human race.

The description makes it feel more like “Young Starship Troopers” rather than “Searching for Bobby Fisher…in Space” which is the spirit of the book at its best (though I admit, Lionsgate marketing probably doesn’t see the latter as particularly effective).  I’d guess given Card’s involvement, however, is that the underlying themes will remain intact.  Of course, I would love to see them fiddle with the ending, but Card’s involvement would likely mitigate against that as much as it would to help save what made the book effective.

Next in this series: Back to the “Spook”-y magic stuff.

The Review: The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

January 9, 2013

Finally, a chance to give my feedback on Peter Jackson’s efforts to turn one little book into three big movies.  I saw this at a theater in 3D but on the standard 24 frames per second format.  So I cannot speak to how the ultra-clear 48fps looked.  You can check out the book review in my Read It Then See It post.

Hobbit PosterThe Movie
The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey, Warner Brothers, New Line.

Based on a  Book?
Yes: The Hobbit, or There and Back Again, by JRR Tolkien, originally published in 1937

Genre
Children’s Fantasy

Age Appropriate
Eight years old and up.  While the book is appropriate for younger children, I felt the film mirrored the tone and violence of Jackson’s LOTR films.  I personally would not have been comfortable taking my child to see it until I felt he was ready for at least The Two Towers, which was for me this past year, when he turned eight.  My sister took her son, who is six, and they both loved it and had no issues.

Good for Grown Ups?
Yes.  While I’ll get to what I see as flaws in this film later, this is really designed for a more mature audience despite coming from a children’s book.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
I often feel that it is the specter that is more frightening than the monster.  In that way, perhaps the most frightening scene in the film is when Gandalf tells the story of another wizard only mentioned in the book, Radagast the Brown.  While in his home attempting to revive an injured animal, he comes under attack from unknown creatures scuttling around the outside.  As it turns out, these are giant spiders we will see in future installments, but Radagast is able to send them away with only their hind quarters being seen as they retreat.  So especially for any of you who have read the book but don’t know it’s coming in the movie, this may be a good time to let your child know that not only will the wizard prevail, but you don’t even really see the spiders (at least not yet).  Also, Azog the one-armed Orc warlord is a pretty freaky and frightening piece of CGI.

Quickie Plot Synopsis
We begin with the fall of the great dwarf city of Erebor by the dastardly Dragon Smaug, and the rise of its heir, Thorin Oakenshield.  With the assistance of wizard Gandalf the Grey, here begins a quest to retake what has become the Lonely Mountain.  Much to the surprise and skepticism of dwarf, elf, and wizard alike, Gandalf has chosen a little hobbit, Bilbo Baggins, to serve as the party’s thief. At Gandalf’s urging, Bilbo reluctantly leaves the comfort of Bag End to join the dwarves on this adventure.

Magneto and Dr. Who together in a Hobbit movie?  Nerdgasm!

Magneto and Dr. Who together in a Hobbit movie? Nerdgasm!

The group is almost immediately beset by danger, from hungry trolls to vicious goblins.  After being lost in a Goblin’s cavern, Bilbo stumbles on a creature called Gollum, and a simple but attractive gold ring.  He tricks Gollum into helping him escape with the added aid of that magical invisibility ring.  Bilbo uses the ring to great effect, saving Thorin and with Gandalf’s help escaping to within sight of the Lonely Mountain.  But something wicked has just awakened in the mountain, and will be awaiting them with fire and desolation…

My Review
So let me start out by saying that I enjoyed this movie.  The acting was superb and I, for one, really did not find the many additions from the books, from Radagast to the White Council to the significant expansion of the story of the Necromancer, to have taken away from the story.  Indeed the significant expansion of Gandalf’s character from a clearly supporting role in the book to a very central figure throughout was, I believe, an excellent choice.

No one tosses a dwarf!

No one tosses a dwarf!

The issue with this movie for me is that it felt very much a “square peg/round hole” effort.  Jackson is essentially attempting to use The Hobbit as the glue that holds a larger story together that connects this tale directly to his fantastic LOTR films.  In doing so, he replicates the same brooding, serious tone of his other films.  Indeed, An Unexpected Journey in many ways feels even more serious than Fellowship of the Ring, as the frivolity feels more sporadic, less organic and, frankly, more annoying with the band of dwarves than it did with Merry and Pippin as well as Gimley providing some needed relief to the dire circumstances.

Frankly, this story, even with Jackson’s embellishments (which, credit where credit is due, is all derived from source materials) is simply not epic enough, feeling more like a thin version of his epic trilogy.  The Hobbit is a children’s fairy tale, even after Tolkien edited the book after writing the trilogy to make it more consistent.  In Jackson’s desire to make these films feel absolutely contiguous with his first trilogy, I believe he has robbed that sense of mirth and fun and replaced it with a grandiosity that is simply not supported by the plot.

What we end up with is an enjoyable, but very bloated piece of filmmaking.  I also found that, unlike LOTR, the CGI effects became distracting, especially in the goblin cavern where the combat looked like a medieval version of Attack of the Clones.  And there came a point when Gandalf said “RUN!” for the 6th time that I felt like I wasn’t watching a plot develop, but a video game on a loop. I found Fellowship of the Ring the strongest of the three LOTR films, and then while they were still wonderful, each became more flawed as the series progressed.  I’m just hoping I’ll be able to say the reverse of The Hobbit trilogy.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
All said, I think there is a LOT to be said for seeing this first and then reading the book.  My sister has been doing this with my nephew, and both of them have been having a great time finding the references in the book that Jackson used as cues to expand upon.  Indeed, in the end there may be something to be said for those that are hot Rings nerds to hold off on the book until you’ve seen all the films.

The Review: Rise of the Guardians

November 27, 2012

Hey everyone, sorry it’s been so long since I’ve posted anything.  I’ve been eye-deep working on my book (more on that soon) so blogging had to take a back seat.  But I’m back as the G-men and I took their Savtah and Grandpa to the movies over Thanksgiving weekend as we were very curious to see the film version of our very favorite new book series—The Guardians of Childhood.  Here are my Read It Then See It posts on the first two books, Nicholas St. North and E. Aster Bunnymund.  I am in the middle of reading the third in the series, Toothiana, now and will post about that as soon as I’m done.

The Movie
Rise of the Guardians, Dreamworks Animation

The Book(s)
Nicholas St. North and the Battle of the Nightmare King
E. Aster Bunnymund and the Warrior Eggs at the Earth’s Core
Toothiana, Queen of the Tooth Fairy Armies
By William Joyce

Genre
Fantasy

Age Appropriate
The bad guy, Pitch Black, could get a little scary for very young children, but given he’s the Boogeyman, he’s actually pretty tame.  The main character is also resurrected from drowning in a frozen lake, but it is also handled with a very deft touch.  I think this film would work for any child 4 and Up.

Good for Grown-Ups?
Generally.  It’s a fairly simple fairytale, but not too cutesy and insipid.  Solid voice acting and CG animation make this a fine couple of hours for the grown-ups.

Spoilers for Younger Kids
A few things here for those that are a little more sensitive.  When Pitch first begins to do his dastardly deed, he perverts a dream that a little girl is having about a unicorn and turns it into a black, flaming-eyed stallion.  That could be a pretty disturbing image, but you can tell your child that the unicorn will get her revenge in the end.  Also, Pitch manages to overwhelm the kindly and powerful Sandman, and seems to destroy him.  Again, you can assure your child that no one can truly destroy dreams, so no doubt he’ll be back to help save the day.

Evil, but in a very British way

Finally, the aforementioned origin of Jack Frost, near the end of the film when he finally remembers his past shows him saving his little sister and falling through the ice and drowning, only to be brought back as the spirit of the cold by the Moon itself.  It’s pretty mild, but young kids might be a little scared by seeing his human form sinking into the icy water.

Quickie Plot Synopsis (light spoilers ahead)
The fantasies of our youth: Santa, the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy, and the Sandman have been chosen by the Man on the Moon to serve as the guardians of our dreams, hopes, and imagination all fueled by the power of children’s belief.  Jack Frost, a new spirit on the block, can make mirth and mischief, but, unlike the Guardians, cannot be seen by children, as even the kids consider him just a fantasy.

The Man on the Moon, however, elevates Jack to full Guardian status despite the resistance of the gang, as the notorious Boogeyman, Pitch Black, has arisen again intent on turning all the dreams of children into nightmares, and stamping out all the belief in the world in magic and wonder, replacing it with a faith in the inky fear that he feeds on.

Jack resists being made part of the team, but when he finds out his true purpose with the help of the one boy who resists Pitch’s bid to stamp out joy in the world, he is able to free the Guardians and, in a final battle with the villain’s minions, drive him back into the shadows and free children to dream again.

My Review
It is impossible to fully separate my opinion of this film from that of the books, as this sort of serves as a quasi-sequel though a number of changes were made to the main characters, most notably the Easter Bunny that went from high-browed intellectual to Crocodile Bunn-ee.

Gus’ favorite thing about the movie was that “New Kirk” was in it, as Chris Pine provides the voice of Jack Frost

To me, it’s a bit surprising that William Joyce was so involved in this movie, as it has the feel of someone who had taken some wonderful books but said “it’s too complicated” and mucked with the whole formula in order to dumb it down for a mainstream audience.  I guess they felt they absolutely had to have all the Guardians in the first film, so better to have the origin story of a new character (Jack Frost) than to try and cram in the introductions of everyone else.

Okay, I generally get that, and the film itself is nice enough.  At it’s center, it is about a person finding his purpose in life, and understanding the worth of bringing joy to others.  The general sentiment as brought to the fore by all the Guardians is nice, and each character has an interesting edge (Santa being a sword-wielding Cossack, Bunny being a boomerang-throwing badass, Tooth Fairy’s obsession with nasty bloody teeth, etc.).  The elves play the now all-too-predictable Minion role from Despicable Me.

The voices, most notably Alec Baldwin’s Santa, are all very good, and the animation is first rate.  The story itself is fine, and there are a number of laugh-out-loud lines and pratfalls, but definitely plays second fiddle to the visual spectacle.  At some points, it also felt like the story was struggling to decide if the journey was Jack Frost’s or the human boy who helps him.  But all in all it is light, fairytale fun.

But as an avid reader of the books, especially the absolutely stunning Nicholas St. North, I cannot but decry the missed opportunity here.  People LOVE good origin stories, and in the first book, you have the origin of Santa himself, as well as other beloved favorites from a nightlight to a bookworm to the Man on the Moon.  I cannot for the life of me understand why there was a need to cram every character here into one film when you had THE classic childhood fantasy figure’s origin story that deftly mixed magic and science fiction with something very profound to say about how we see the world.  In the holiday season, I think that would have been just as, if not more successful than what they came up with here, and would have far better set up sequels more easily adapted from the source material.

So, overall, a respectable piece of holiday fluff, but no more than that.

Overall Score: 3 out of 5 stars

See It Then Read It
My big fella who has been avidly reading the books with me absolutely detested this film.  He was SO shocked and disappointed that they changed the characters, that there was no Katherine, the heroine of the books, and that the real dream-like magic of the stories was replaced with a frenetic action-hero styling.  I have to say I struggled with that myself.

However, this does make me thing that for those who see and enjoy the film, it might actually be a great gateway into the books as prequels.  I would guess that many kids who liked the film will really be captivated by the books and the many unexpected places it goes, and it will help round out the film’s story, rather than it feeling like a pale imitation as it does when you read the books first.

So, indeed, if your kids have not read the books yet, this is one where I highly recommend a See It Then Read It approach.  Same goes for grown-ups, too.